A catalogue of lexical curiosities

October 13, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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A catalogue of lexical curiosities

The allure of the smartphone makes it difficult to focus on reading an old-fashioned book. Even with notifications turned off, the tantalising prospect of the latest Twitter updates or WhatsApp messages easily win out over the printed word. In a bid to spend more time reading actual books rather than the latest hot-take, I’ve taken to removing my phone from the room completely. But this has come with an unexpected downside — the inability to look stuff up immediately, particularly new or unusual words. So I’ve taken to scribbling intriguing items of vocabulary in a notebook for later investigation and the result is that I am gradually creating a catalogue of lexical curiosities. Here’s a brief tour of some recent discoveries.

Moiling: requiring hard work, violently agitated
A Google search (which uses the dictionary provided by Oxford Languages) has the verb moil marked as archaic / dialect, and most delightfully gives us the etymology from Old French moillier, to paddle in mud or moisten. Wading through mud as a metaphor for a laborious task immediately springs to mind, as does the phrase toil and moil, which was the only context in which I had previously encountered this lexical item.

Conniption: a fit of rage, hysteria, or alarm
The North American origin of this term had never been apparent to me. Nor had I realised it was a relatively recent coinage, with roots going back only to the 19th century when it is thought to have been invented. Pleasingly, the historical use of this word trundles along quite calmly from its first appearance until around the year 2000 when it spikes sharply upwards, perhaps finding its true purpose in the modern era of outrage culture.

Panopticon: a prison with cells arranged in a circle, so that the people in them can be seen at all times from the centre
This is another word with a recent spike in its Google ngram graph. First coined in the late 18th century by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, it describes a system of surveillance in which those being watched cannot possibly know if they are currently under observation and thus must behave at all times under the assumption that they are. The Guardian explains the word’s rise in popularity in the late 20th century as a metaphor for the “surveillance tendencies of disciplinarian societies”. Its continued rise in the digital age suggests ongoing relevance, but the key characteristic of the subject knowing that they may be being observed is often forgotten. As The Guardian puts it “state surveillance on the internet is invisible”, which means panopticon isn’t entirely appropriate in this context.

Promulgate: to promote or make widely known
This term has a similar meaning to promote but is more formal in tone and largely confined to legal or regulatory language, where it has the sense of enacting or putting into effect a law or decree (via a proclamation of some kind). Having said that, a tweet from Donald Trump in 2018 bemoaning the evil of “Fake News so easily promulgated by fools” caused this overlooked word to be one of Merriam Webster’s top lookups that month. After a brief moment of glory in the mainstream, however, promulgate appears to have reverted to its more esoteric reputation.



Image: Pixabay

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